A barrier gone, but not forgotten

The first thing that struck us was the distance between the watchtowers. We had just cycled a strenuous mile uphill above the medieval village of Geisa, along the Iron Curtain Trail that follows the old Warsaw Pact-NATO divide in central Germany. Now, in the tranquillity of the early evening, we emerged at the top of the hill onto a verdant field adorned with European Union and German flags — and two sinister-looking structures that faced off against each other no more than 65 meters apart.

 Between them stood a remnant of the original Iron Curtain fence: Its concrete support posts had once been fortified with anti-personnel fragmentation mines loaded with an explosive charge of 110 grams of TNT and 80 metal splinters that could be propelled 27 meters in all directions. A German shepherd molded from concrete and painted in shades of brown and black, a classic piece of Cold War kitsch, was tethered by a metal chain to a tree.

 But it was the towers that demanded attention: The East German relic, erected in the early 1970s, was an ugly white column about 12 meters high, topped by an observation slot and a bristling array of listening equipment. The American installation, dominated by an open-air deck, looked like a combination military post and lifeguard station — “Seven Days in May” meets “Baywatch.”

 From 1953 until 1989, these watchtowers straddled the most dangerous border in the world. American troops from the 14th and 11th Armored Cavalry Regiments stared down East German soldiers just across the divide from their base, Point Alpha, waiting for the ground attack that would usher in World War III.

 The NATO brass believed that, in the event of a Soviet Union-led invasion of Western Europe, tanks and troops would pour across these verdant hills marking the westernmost extremity of the Iron Curtain: the so-called Fulda Gap, named after the largest West German town in the region. This Cold War confrontation point even inspired an eponymous board game called “Fulda Gap: The First Battle of the Next War,” in which opponents plotted the invasion, and defense, of Western Europe.

 After the Berlin Wall fell 20 years ago this November, Observation Point Alpha, as the GIs called this flashpoint, became an instant anachronism. The fence was dismantled, the soldiers withdrew, and — after a heated debate within the German government about whether or not to tear down the installations — Point Alpha was preserved as a testament to the tensions and absurdities of divided Europe.

 Now, this piece of Cold War history is perhaps the best-preserved relic on the Iron Curtain Trail, a 6,800-kilometer network of bicycle paths that extends along the former Warsaw Pact-NATO border, from northern Finland to the Black Sea. In recent years, thanks primarily to the efforts of a German Green Party activist and European Union parliamentarian, Michael Cramer, trails have been rehabilitated with financing from the European Union, and historical markers have been erected.

 A brochure with maps in German and English covering the entire route has just been published.

 This summer, the photographer Mark Simon and I spent a three-day weekend cycling a 160-kilometer section of the route in the German states of Hesse and Thuringia. Intensive fortification of this border zone during the Cold War depopulated large swaths of the region and stopped all development, and today the route cuts across pristine farmland, beautiful villages and nature reserves filled with wildlife.

 And although most traces of the Cold War era have vanished, military roads and observation towers still dot the idyllic countryside, imbuing pastoral Western European landscapes with a touch of “Dr. Strangelove.”

 Mark and I caught the Inter-City Express from Berlin’s Hauptbahnhof early on July 4, a fitting date, perhaps, to explore the former Cold War confrontation zone. Three hours later, we got off in Fulda, an undistinguished town in Hesse 40 kilometers west of the Iron Curtain Trail. We rented 21-speed touring bikes and saddle bags at a bicycle shop just down the street from the train station, and followed signs to the R3, one of five rural bike trails created by the Hessen government out of 320 kilometers of disused railroad track.

 The asphalt path rose due east through wheat and corn fields, dairy farms and lush pastures, passing roadside refreshment stands set up for cyclists, then plunged into the frigid Milseburg Tunnel — an eerie, milelong converted railway tunnel burrowed through the Rhon Mountains west of Hilders. Then it was a speedy descent to the frontier between Hesse and Thuringia, marked by a sign that read:

 “Good Day, Dear Guest: You Are Standing Exactly on the Border of What Was, Until 1990, Divided Germany.”

 At Hilders, the R3 becomes the Iron Curtain Trail, and we veered north and followed it along the former border. After our day of strenuous cycling, covering about 56 kilometers, we stopped for the night at a country inn called Zur Pferdetranke (At the Horse Trough), in the former East German village of Schleid. This peaceful setting was once inside the East German sperrgebiet, the 5-kilometer-wide security zone that ran along the border with West Germany.

 Gabriele Herrlich and her husband, Stefan, started Zur Pferdetranke just after the border opened in November 1989, and expanded it to nine rooms a decade ago. Over a hearty southern-German supper of schnitzel, fried potatoes and pilsner in the guesthouse garden, both recalled the surreal combination of tranquillity and paranoia that defined life inside this Strangelovian world.

 “We grew up with soldiers everywhere, with no visitors allowed from outside,” Herrlich said. “We all thought it was completely normal.”

 Although American troops were stationed a mile away at Point Alpha, “we had no knowledge of that,” his wife recalled. “It was kept totally secret.”

 As a teenager, Gabriele Herrlich began to realize the sinister dimensions of the East German dictatorship, which reached its fullest incarnation inside this security zone. When a neighbor complained one evening about the early closing times of East German bars and said he planned to sneak across the border and have a beer in the West German town of Philippsthal, his comment was reported to the Stasi, the secret police. He was arrested, convicted of disloyalty and jailed.

 “We had security here, but total fear as well,” Gabriele Herrlich recalled.

 The Iron Curtain Trail from Schleid led north through Geisa, a charming village that also lay inside the sperrgebiet. From there, it was a steep climb up a rural asphalt road that headed west and was well marked with signs pointing to Point Alpha.

 In addition to the watchtowers, the Cold War confrontation point includes, on the Thuringia (eastern) side, a small museum called the House on the Border. The museum recreates the atmosphere inside the high-security zone, through dioramas, military vehicles, border guards’ uniforms and the oral testimonies of some of the 8,300 border-zone inhabitants who, suspected of disloyalty to the Communist dictatorship, were removed from the sperrgebiet beginning in 1952.

 In those early Cold War days, the 1,300-kilometer border between East and West Germany was lightly guarded and delineated by a few strands of barbed wire, and thousands fled to the West. But after the construction of the Berlin Wall in August 1961, Soviet and East German troops fortified the frontier with land mines, watchtowers and high fences, and escape became nearly impossible.

 (One exhibition at Point Alpha is a simple wooden cross that memorializes an East German teenager who tried to climb over the fence there in 1975, in view of United States troops. His legs were blown off by an anti-personnel mine, and he died the next day.)

 On the Hessen side of Point Alpha, the American military camp is a perfectly preserved Cold War time capsule, with barracks, a mess hall, a helicopter pad, even a barbecue and horseshoe pit.

 An abandoned military road, overgrown with weeds, marked the former boundary line. We crossed the once-fortified divide, and rode down a steep hill to the village of Rasdorf.

 There, we met Gisela Budenz, owner of a cafe that once served as a gathering spot for American troops and civilian personnel based in Fulda.

 Since the last American troops departed Fulda in 1994, her cafe had fallen on hard times. “We get a bit lonely,” she said.

 As I got back on my bike, I asked Budenz whether she missed the Cold War. She nodded, and said, “It was good for us.”